The Family Coffin

 

1

 

 

 

Grandfather was a very practical man. He was many other things– neat, organized, patient, all which qualities were invaluable as he spent most of his life repairing clocks– but above all he was practical. Just before his fiftieth birthday, he hired a carpenter to make his coffin. This was back in the days when you were lucky to live to the age of fifty. My grandmother was fond of saying, though, that if you made it to fifty, you could live a lot longer; ironically she died at forty-nine. So the idea of having his coffin made beforehand was not as maudlin as it may sound. Actually it was no different than buying an insurance policy to cover your funeral, or even pre-paying for your funeral, these days. But still his neighbors and relatives talked. Not endowed with his foresight and sensibility, they choose to ignore their mortality– or anyone else’s for that matter– while my grandfather was content in the knowledge that his coffin was waiting for him, neatly wrapped and stored in a corner of his basement.

It was a handsome coffin, although not as streamlined at today’s models. It was made of cherry wood that promised to defy the effects of the passage of time. The carpenter, who was also a gifted woodcarver, had cut a finely detailed crucifix on the lid. The interior of the coffin was lined with fine silk of powder blue to match my grandfather’s navy blue suit. The handles of the coffin were made of brass, thick and sturdy, and polished to a high gloss. All in all, the coffin was not a bad place in which to spend eternity, and the only shame of it, my grandfather believed, was that the coffin would be sealed in a vault under six feet of dirt, where no one could ever see and appreciate the craftsmanship that had gone into it.

His fiftieth birthday came and went without incident. He continued to work at H. Dunham & Sons Jewelers, where he pored over broken pocket watches the day long, trying to breathe life into them, though, more often than not, they were very old and nearly hopeless. His eyes were still sharp, his hands steady, and he had no trouble working with the tiny inner mechanisms that baffled the ordinary person. H. Dunham, the founding father of the jewelry store, often proclaimed to a doubtful customer who’d entered the store with a watch that had been stepped on or run over be a car, that my grandfather was a miracle-worker and that all hopes of repairing the damaged item was not lost. My grandfather often proved H. Dunham a genius.

He was devastated when my grandmother died. It wasn’t so much the idea that he would miss her, nor just the general idea that death is a terrible thing, but rather that she had beat him to the promised land. He had always assumed that he would be the first to go, and he had planned to forge his way into the unknown, where he would find the most beautiful place for his wife and him to spend eternity when his wife finally came to join him. It wasn’t a period of grief that he entered, but a period of confusion. Rather than worry about being alone, he would wonder what she would do there, in the afterlife, without him. The woman had never been much good at planning, so surely, she couldn’t be expected to plan their eternity together. If she tried, she would, without doubt, arrange for substandard accommodations, with which the two of them would then have to tolerate for the rest of all time. Late at night, sometimes, he’d wandered through his dark lonely house, and speak to his wife. It wouldn’t be sentimental talk, but instead instructions, cautions, and encouragement. “You’d want to find a place near water,” he’d say, visualizing his idea of eternal paradise. “A lake is good– an ocean better, with its waves breaking upon a beach or a rocky shoal. But never accept a river. No, never a river; a river is most undesirable. There is no tranquility in a river. The waters run and run and run… endlessly. There is also the matter of the odor– also very bad, and definitely not something you’d want to smell forever and ever….” And on and on, he’d speak to her, as he paced the creaky wood floor with small precise steps. Before he went to bed, he’d write down everything he had told her for that day; he’d write it all down in a journal, which, many years later, I would find in the dusty attic of my father’s house.

Grandfather was convinced that, though he felt well, he was not long for this world. He was sure that soon he would be reunited with his wife, soon enough to halt any unfortunate mistakes or misjudgments she might have made while staking a claim in the promised land. This, however, was not to be; ironically, he would not die for many years. His children, my father and two uncles, were just kids then, but by the time grandfather finally gave up the ghost, they would be more than one footstep into middle age themselves.

Throughout the years, he stubbornly clung to the belief that death was round the corner, while actually, for him, it wasn’t even in the same city. As time went by, he would change his will many times, depending on which of his children disappointed him most at the moment. Every year or so he’d move his important papers– will, insurance policy, house deed– to a new, safer hiding place. Whenever he did this, he’d inform my father or one of my uncles. “The insurance policy’s in the bottom drawer of my dresser… just in case.” They’d heard it all so many times, that eventually they stopped listening. “Yeah, right,” my uncle Aaron was fond of saying. “Pretty soon we’ll have to start telling him where our insurance policies are hid.” And so it was that when my grandfather finally died, at the age of ninety-seven, no one knew where his important papers were secured.

The funeral arrangements fell to my father– not because he was the eldest, but because he could never say no. It was a simple, private affair. All grandfather’s friends were long dead; there were just the immediate family, many of whom wagged their heads and took the death in stride. There is no shock and very little grief involved at the passing of someone so old. He certainly hadn’t been cheated, and had been ill only the last two weeks, while in the hospital. At the wake, every one there commented that this was the way they would want to live and die– if given the choice. Most other conversations dealt with whether there were six family members able-bodied enough to serve as pallbearers. Only my Uncle Bill, the black sheep of the family– most often cut out of the will, only to be cut in later– broke the monotony of the hushed small talk by suggesting maybe the old man wasn’t dead after all, and maybe someone ought to go up to the coffin and give him a poke.

After the funeral, my father returned to the Victorian house in which he had grown up. During his search for important papers, he found the long-forgotten coffin. It must have been a bleak moment for him, to realize that his father’s long-held wish to be buried in the custom-made coffin had completely slipped his mind. But what could he do now?– dig up the old man, and have him switched out from the sleek aluminum coffin in which he now lay? No, that didn’t seem right; it seemed as wrong as waking someone up who desperately needs sleep and has just dosed off. In the end, my father’s own practical mind settled the issue: the man is dead, so really what difference does it make to him now?

Grandfather had left his estate in impeccable order. Everyone received what he wished them to have, and everyone involved was satisfied. The only argument that arose regarded the coffin, which was still stored in the corner of the basement. It was the only item that wasn’t covered by the will, because grandfather was supposed to be buried in it. The dispute developed when it became clear that none of the heirs– neither my father, nor Uncle Aaron, nor Uncle Bill– wanted the coffin, and yet they all agreed that the coffin did hold sentimental value and someone should take it. Even my Uncle Bill, the least mawkish of the trio, agreed that they shouldn’t just threw the coffin in the garbage– though he would like to see the faces of the garbage collectors come pick-up day. In the end, my father broke down, and agreed to take the coffin. Maybe it was because he was so easy-going. Maybe it was just to keep peace in the family. Or maybe he just felt it was his fault the coffin hadn’t been used in accordance to my grandfather’s wish. He never really said why he agreed to take the coffin, and all I knew was that at the age of fourteen years old I lived in a house that had an old coffin neatly tucked away in our basement.

 

 

 

2

 

 

It was really a pretty creepy thing to have in the house. At first no one wanted go into that part of the basement. Huge arguments broke out between my brother, Aaron, my sister, Callie, and me, when deciding whose turn it was to do laundry. The coffin was kept in a small storage room next to the laundry room.

“I’d rather run around in dirty clothes, honest,” Callie would say. “Every time I do laundry now, I keep staring at that door. I can’t even listen to music. I have to keep taking off my headphones because I think I hear moaning coming from in there. Why do we have to keep that thing anyway? Why doesn’t Dad just throw it out?”

“Because it’s a family heirloom,” Aaron told her. “You can’t go throwing out heirlooms, now can you?”

“Heirloom-smeirloom,” Callie said. “If it were up to me, I’d turn it into firewood.”

“But it’s not up to you, is it?” Aaron came back.

And they would go back and forth, arguing until they reached the magically conclusion that I ought to be the one to do the laundry. No amount of protesting could get me out of it. I was the youngest. Callie, at fifteen, had reached the age when females get exceptionally mean, and Aaron, at seventeen, was about eight inches taller than me and could win an argument simply by standing. It became my dismal fate to take everyone’s turn doing the laundry.

I would sit on a small folding chair, the kind used by fishermen, and listen to the swish-swish of the washing machine and the rumble of the dryer. It was impossible to keep my eyes from drifting toward the door to the storage room. I’d try to read, listen to music, anything, but nothing worked. It was an involuntary reflex, like being unable to look away from a horrible accident site you’re passing on the expressway. Every now and then, I would get up and slowly open the storage room door. I’d peek into the unlighted room to assure myself the coffin was still inside, as though it might have miraculously vanished, but there it would always be, a grotesque form barely visible in the shadows. Week after week, I got stuck with the chore of doing the laundry. I was certain by now that Callie and Aaron had convinced by parents that I didn’t mind it at all. “It‘s not unfair at all,” they’d probably say. “It doesn’t bother him in the least.” Oddly enough, as time passed, I did really grow used to the presence of the coffin. To me, it became no different from the washer, dryer, hot water heater, or any other object in the basement.

One day, though, I opened the storage room door to check on the coffin. I stepped into the small dark room. I reached out, curious to feel the carving on the lid of the coffin. Just as I was about to touch the wood, I swore a heard something move inside the coffin. It was a faint frantic sound, as though some small creature was trapped inside the coffin and trying to get out. Later, naturally, everyone would try to convince me that all I had heard was the rumbling the dryer tumbling clothes, but at the moment I shrieked and bolted upstairs.

It must have taken a good ten minute for me to speak intelligibly; my words tripped over one another and I could only babble. When I finally got through to them, my mother and Callie stared at me with huge round eyes as though they believed it might be true. My father just stood there, weary, tired of having to deal with the issue of the coffin. Aaron tried to cover the smirk on his face with his hand, and then quickly went to his bedroom, from where we all could hear him laughing hysterically.

“That’s it, Bob,” my mother told my father. “That thing has to go. I don’t want it in my house.”

“But–” my father began to protest.

“I know. I know. It’s a keepsake, right? But it’s not– it’s not a keepsake at all. A pocket watch is a keepsake. A family Bible is a keepsake. A pair of earrings, a lock of hair, baby booties– those are keepsakes. This is a coffin. You don’t keep it. You leave it. You leave it in the ground, presumably with someone inside it. Why would you possibly want to keep it?”

It was then that my father confessed he’d decided to be buried in the coffin himself when his time came. “It would save you the trouble of having to buy one,” he told my mother.

“What?– in thirty, forty years? And until then, it’s going to make everyone crazy?”

But in the end my father won the argument. He won it the way he always won arguments with my mother; he let her talk herself out, until she was she tired she just didn’t care any more.

So the coffin stayed.

It only left the house once, years later, when Aaron, who was attending NIU, stole into the house with a couple frat brothers and borrowed the coffin for a Halloween party at the fraternity house. It was returned the following weekend, with nobody the wiser– or so Aaron believed. While checking on the coffin one day, I noticed that, though it appeared no different, there was the faint odor of beer about it. When I confronted Aaron some time later, he confessed, saying the coffin made a great prop and that it was unfortunate that somebody had spilled a beer on the fine silk lining.

A few years later, my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She died fifteen months later. Aaron and Callie were married by then, and Callie was pregnant with a grandchild my mother would never see. I was living in a one bedroom apartment. I had finished college and found a pretty good job as a salesman for a paper manufacturer. And so, after the funeral, my father went home to live alone, oddly remindful of my grandfather so many years ago. Unlike my grandfather, my father didn’t last for very long. He never even reached retirement age. Six years later he fell ill and was put in the hospital. He went through scores of test before he finally passed away, but the doctors were never able to render a certain cause of death. On his death certificate, his doctor cited “a general physical entropy,” which, I was sure, meant that he didn’t have a clue.

Surprisingly, Aaron volunteered to take care of the funeral arrangements. This was a relief to me. I had just gone through a brutal divorce, the legal outcome of which saw me getting custody of my two sons, ages two and three, while at the same time having to pay alimony to my wife. So I wasn’t in any position emotionally to deal with planning a funeral.

At the wake, I saw that my father laid not an old handmade wooden coffin, but rather in a bronze metallic one. I took Aaron over to the side, away from the sickly smell of flowers and the murmuring of family and friends. “This coffin is a loaner or something, right? He’s not being buried in it.”

Aaron explained what had happened. He had had Grandfather’s coffin delivered to the funeral home. After the funeral director examined the coffin, he assured Aaron that it was unusable; it did not meet the minimum requirements set by state law.

Though I suspected that the funeral director had pulled off a fast one, in order to sell Aaron an expensive coffin, there was hardly anything anyone could do now.

After the grave site ceremony at the cemetery, even as mourners wandered back to their cars and even before the workmen lowered my father into the hole, Aaron and Callie had me cornered. Each explained in his own demented way why he though I ought to be the one to take custody of grandfather’s coffin. This wasn’t any big shock; I’d seen it coming– knew it in my heart, maybe even years ago, that it would come down to this. What surprised me, though, was how they made it all sound like such an honor, as though a torch was being passed and not an old coffin– an old coffin which, if the funeral director hadn’t lied– could never be used.

So now, again, I live in a house that has a coffin stored in its basement. It is not as big as our old house, just a duplex. It is all I can afford right now, what with the alimony I have to pay, the tuition for pre-school and all the other expenses involved while raising two small boys. The place is a little shabby, the carpet wearing think, the plumbing growing old and grumpy, but the neighborhood is quiet and pretty safe. It doesn’t have a full basement, and so I store the coffin in the laundry room, where it leans upright against the cinder block wall. Every time I do our laundry, I sit there, as I did once as a teenager, and contemplate the coffin. I wonder why we do it: keep useless things out of sentiment. It doesn’t matter much whether it’s a coffin, an old broken fishing reel that once belonged to a beloved uncle, or a book whose pages have been partly eaten away by silverfish. It all seems rather ridiculous, holding on to something so useless.

The boys don’t seem to mind the coffin much. Sometimes they open its lid to play hide and seek. They are too young to realize that it is a creepy relic.

I can hear them running around upstairs now, chasing each other around. I wonder when I’m gone, which one will get stuck with the coffin. Sometimes I think they’ll start arguing about it now; it’s never too early to start fighting over something stupid. I hope, though, that after I die, they agree to do right thing, to do the thing that no one has as yet had the heart to do. It would make wonderful firewood, after all, and it all has to come to an end, a merciful end, some day.

 

 

 

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